How to Criticize Religion. Part 1: Understand Why and How Metaphors Work in Practice

Some atheists see no need to understand religions in detail. They’ll say, “Just as one needn’t be a ‘unicornologist’ to justify a nonbelief in unicorns, one needn’t know the intricacies of theology to justify a nonbelief in gods. If religious beliefs are irrationally derived and systematically false, their particulars don’t matter.”

Now it is true that preposterous beliefs with nothing but religions to vouch for them can indeed be dismissed as false in a fell swoop. Nonetheless, we must also take seriously that some beliefs, although false, can have both a high degree of internal logical consistency and can map to limited domains of the world effectively enough in practice for people to navigate their lives and figure out what is good and bad for themselves to a significant degree while using them. Sometimes, a set of false beliefs are just (or at least function the same as) a colorful set of metaphors for actual realities. And to the extent that these metaphors connect logically to one another to how things in reality connect to one another, such fictions may be functionally as good as truer beliefs would be. Religious people are not just stupid fantasists completely out of touch with reality. In order to criticize religion well we first need to sympathetically understand the internal logics of religions and empirically look at their real world implementations and variations.

Even if I falsely believe my doctor is a “magic healer,” who gives me “magic healings” from “magic potions,” I will still get better so long as her medicines are right, etc. I’m not just totally out of touch with reality. I’m metaphorically onto the truth and reliably able to get good results. That’s not to say my mistake does not matter. People should still try to correct my mistake. It would be a disaster if I were to try to become a “magic healer” myself while stubbornly refusing to believe in the science behind medicine.

And sometimes religious believers will have such clashes when they stretch their functionally effective falsehoods to parts of reality where they don’t work, like science, philosophy, or some areas of morality. We should criticize religions’ literally false beliefs because they couldand throughout history have, become impediments, stopping some from accepting true beliefs or improving values. We can acknowledge that and defend the right to criticize literal beliefs while not denying that some religious believers are good at compartmentalization and only use religious metaphors where they work for them. Believers switch to thinking scientifically or with common sense or even philosophical acumen when necessary. So, again, despite the ludicrous things religious people might explicitly affirm, what they believe and do in practice may not be as bad as they sound to atheists.

Similarly, it’s simplistic when atheists accuse all praying as “a way to do nothing while feeling like you’re doing something.”  Believers, as often as anyone, do tangible things in their power to help others. For many, prayer is not the use of magic as a shortcut that absolves responsibility to do hard work. Prayer is often just what people do after they’ve done all that they personally could and wish there was something more. Or it could be what they do when they know they’re powerless to help and are just expressing their desperation, solidarity, or concern. Through prayer, they meditate, focus, articulate their hopes and anxieties, process psychologically, make sense of struggles, bond with others, and create for themselves a sometimes soothing and empowering illusion of control. These various functions may be the functions and logic behind praying. Literal belief in prayer should be criticized vigorously, but the focus should be based on its false premise that it influences a deity to help and the real venom should be spent warning people away from deadly attempts to pray illness away in lieu of medicine–even while recognizing these are a minority of cases and that most people desperate enough to pray are also eager to go to doctors if they can.

I’ve seen atheists reason to the worst imagined religious implication with respect to suicide too and infer that religious beliefs in the afterlife are to blame whenever a believer commits suicide since their belief in the afterlife allows them to see death as not really the end of existence. Or they argue that if a religious believer does commit suicide explicitly to be reunited with a loved one or to escape from earthly miseries to Heaven, that it is religion’s fault for giving them that misleading afterlife belief, without which they’d be alive.

But before making such charges, it matters to understand the actual logic the religious use and act on when thinking about the afterlife. Catholicism, for example, teaches that those who commit suicide don’t go to Heaven, so it can hardly be seen as encouraging suicide. Other religions demand certain suicide rituals and can clearly be blamed. There is variation.

And it also matters to know whether believers in an afterlife are statistically any more likely to kill themselves. So far, they actually seem less likely. If someone is so scared of dying that they’re desperately trying to delude themselves that they can still live afterwards, there’s no reason to assume they’re a suicide risk. Believers in the afterlife can usually be observed to grieve loved ones as much as nonbelievers. Such beliefs do not usually interfere with their healthy psychological aversions to death.

But even as we understand implausible religious beliefs, not just literally but also metaphorically and functionally, we should still criticize the literal falseness of such beliefs since major percentages, worldwide, take them for literal truth and deserve to be disabused of error so that they can make truly informed decisions about their lives and have the intrinsic value of knowing the world as it is more clearly.

And false beliefs can be harmful. There have been death cults. And even mainstream religions have sometimes manipulated people to sacrifice their lives for a cause against their interests, tantalizing them with the false promise of an afterlife as a reward. It is fair to blame a religion, or a segment within it, to the extent that its prescriptive claims are the key ingredient in some specific person losing her life unwisely. It is also a worthy project to undermine the false literal belief that can be so exploited. It is also fair to blame religious teaching when someone’s belief in a creator and in the authority of a religious text has the effect of making them an evolution denialist, even though not every religious believer denies evolution. It is a problem when religiously inculcated beliefs lead to misogyny, homophobia, racism, or other evils and false moral judgments.

Pro-religious people talk as though just because some religious beliefs can be recast as metaphors for actually true things, or can be seen as sometimes operationally beneficial despite being literally false, religious beliefs and practices are therefore always beyond criticism for falsity or harmfulness. This is where the pro-religious err very problematically.  They need to take seriously that some metaphors are bad and the morals of some religious stories are actually unwise, harmful, or even evil. Some religious ideas distort, rather than illumine, reality–even for those who know that metaphors are valuable only as metaphors and especially for the sizable proportion of those who don’t realize this.

Your Thoughts?

How To Criticize Religion: Don’t Treat All of Religion as a Monolith
How To Criticize Religion: Address The Question of “True Religion” With Nuance
How To Criticize Religion: Understand Religions in their Contexts

From December 2013-March 2013, I published four essays and a series of blog posts with Secularite, a short lived website and digital magazine producer that is now closing its doors. The writers from Secularite have graciously been given permission to republish our writing for Secularite elsewhere now that it will be defunct and inaccessible. I have already republished my “Empowerment Ethics” series written for them (which I had already arranged rights to reproduce from the start). Everyday for the course of this week, I will be reproducing my posts for the Secularite digital magazine. The post above was the second of those. The first was In Defense of Trying To Deconvert People.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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